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Starkey: Steelers' integrity on the line

Nothing to play for• Are you kidding• The Steelers have something positively essential to play for in their final three games.

Namely, the integrity of the NFL's most decorated franchise.

This team has embarrassed itself not just by dropping five consecutive games — including losses to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns in a span of 18 days — but by doing so in often listless fashion.

Ex-Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said it well Friday, from his North Shore restaurant, site of his weekly radio show. He was speaking of the dreadful 13-6 loss in Cleveland, and his opinion echoed that of former NFL players and coaches-turned-analysts across the country.

"That," Bettis said, "did not look like a team that even cared about being in the playoffs."

The Steelers' leaders include men of proven toughness — men Bettis knows well — so why the seeming disinterest?

"I think it starts at the top," Bettis said. "You have to look at, is the head coach getting through to them?"

I wonder — and I think the most intriguing question surrounding the stretch run is this: Will these Steelers finish off a lost season for Mike Tomlin with as much vigor as the 2006 Steelers finished a lost season for lame-duck coach Bill Cowher?

The signs are not good, based on the past month.

Tomlin's bravado, including his empty promises of lineup changes, has fallen on deaf ears. He must use these final three games to re-assert his authority in a defeated locker room and set the tone for next season.

If that sounds trite, consider some recent history.

Bettis fondly remembered the 2000 season, when the Steelers started 5-6. The playoffs were gone, but, unlike the previous two seasons, the Steelers finished with some fight, winning four of five. One game was especially memorable - a come-from-behind, 21-20 victory over a very good Oakland Raiders team.

The Steelers battled like crazy that day. Quarterback Kordell Stewart won over the locker room by playing through an injury. That would lead to his MVP-caliber campaign of 2001, when the Steelers finished 13-3.

That's what can happen during a stretch of so-called meaningless games.

Then consider 2003, year of the Tommy Gun fiasco. The Steelers lost five in a row to drop to 2-6 but refused to die. They finished 4-4, including a spirited, 13-10 loss at playoff-bound Baltimore in the season finale. The Ravens had clinched the division earlier in the day but played their starters. The Steelers kept Jamal Lewis from breaking the NFL's single-season rushing record, forced the game to overtime ... and went 15-1 the following season.

In 2006, the Steelers again started 2-6. I've never believed that was attributable to a Super Bowl hangover so much as a banged-up, ineffective quarterback. Regardless, a team with every excuse to fade came together for a final stand, finishing 6-2 (it would have made the playoffs with one more win).

The capper was Cowher's final game, when the Steelers went to Cincinnati and ruined the Bengals' playoff hopes with a rousing overtime victory. But it was a Dec. 7 game against the Browns that always stood out to me.

Heinz Field was an ice box that night, a frigid host for a nothing game between two struggling teams. Yet, the Steelers approached it like a playoff game, played with emotion and came away with a 27-7 victory.

The message there was clear. The Steelers were saying to the Browns, "Look, we might be stuck at the same bus stop right now, freezing in the rain, but we're headed in drastically different directions. We're still the Steelers, and you're still the Browns."

A much different message was delivered Thursday night.

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